The Decline and Fall of IBM
I wrote this quite a while ago, never finished the article until now. Enjoy.
With this words Robert X Cringley a.k.a Mark Stephens celebrates himself when he asserts something clever. His book The Decline and Fall of IBM created quite some stir and was a hot topic of discussion especially among IBMers and alumni.
So I got myself a copy and had a look. Clearly he has an axe to grind with IBM and everybody is invited. Many came. Half of the book consists of mostly grieving comments ranging from 2007 until 2014. With all this contributions, the content remains light on substance. After all it costs you less than a late.
Some of the stated observations are spot on, like "IBM is a sales organisation", others while looking like observations, but rather are opinions (e.g. "IBM lost its way") and statements that made me feel: "why didn't the IBM board ask him to run IBM? He seems to know so much better!", exactly like an arbitrary spectator of the world cup in a pub can tell you what a team did wrong.
I'm not saying, that all is well in IBM, that would be a fools view. An organisation with a size and workforce exceeding several countries does live in challenging times. An economic system, that values growth over everything is problematic (In biology an organism that grows indefinitely is called cancer) at least and transiting to a global workforce on this scale is unparalleled. I share his view that the dance around the golden calf known as shareholder value might be praying to a false good.
Here are some comments to Cringley's statements, that crossed my mind (paraphrasing):
- Cringley: "In IBM management is royalty, the sales force the nobility and technical people are the peasants. No peasant can dream to become royalty".
Yeah right! IBM fellows, IBM Distinguished Engineers or members of the IBM Academy of Technology will disagree. The irony here: in the "good old IBM (of Watson)" there was no career path for technical experts. In the IBM of today there is
- I worked a lot with our engineers in India and China. They are hard working, ready to learn and, by now, quite experienced. Asserting that they are less capable that their American counterparts, seems quite arrogant to me. Yes, they were unexperienced a decade ago, but that's a long time in IT years. Also: there are capable and incapable engineers everywhere. Pinning it on a specific country or region is (insert your own statement of backwards here). A real issue however are IBM's processes, that had been designed to cater to get less experienced people on board. They need an overhaul.
- Cringley: "IBM should not sell the Intel servers to Lenovo".
Yeah right! Cringley portrays it as the complete exit out of a server growth market. However IBM still has Intel based technology in their PureSystems and acquired skills and know how through the Softlayer acquisition how to build the special segment of Intel based machines that run in cloud size data centres. So instead of exiting a segment, it looks to me like eliminating duplicate product lines
- Cringley: "IBM should port AIX to Intel".
Yeah right! AIX runs on one class of IBM machines (System P), while Linux runs on everything from
SoftlayerBluemix to Mainframe. Linux outperforms AIX on System P in quite some workloads. So what makes a better investment? Port AIX or infuse the security know how of AIX into Linux? (the file system options are there already)
- Cringley: "IBM should ditch the Power architecture and switch to Intel"
Yeah right! IBM has vast know how in building processors that will get lost when stopping to develop them. Asset utilisation isn't ditching assets, but making them more competitive. Intel and ARM aren't the only shops who can design processors, just have a look at OpenPOWER
- Cringley: Hadoop will make mainframes obsolete.
Yeah right! The technology is around for a decade, Google, its inventor, already moved on. Asserting a single technology will kill the I/O beasts known as Big Iron, looks like an inflight magazine statement. Besides the fact, that IBM offers a robust Hadoop implementation for a while already, which you can run on zLinux, if you choose so.
- The book contains quite some areas, like current staff morale, the process culture or the layers of management that highlight pain. However where he is wrong: IBM isn't blind to the issues and there are forces inside working for the betterment (even if there is a case of a Knowing-Doing-Gap)